2021, R, 107 min. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Starring Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Santiago Cabrera, Paola Giannini, Cristián Suárez, Giannina Fruttero.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Aug. 20, 2021
Ema is a vibrantly loud movie, propelled by dance and lust, and a celebration of sexuality like no other film before it. It is a fountain of energy, both bewitching and terrifying all at once. Ema (Di Girolamo) and Gastón (García Bernal) have lost their child, an adopted boy who was theirs until, like the flicker of a flame, he was gone. Pablo Larraín’s dazzling film is a dizzying deconstruction of the nuclear family, an exploration of untraditional motherhood and parenting.
Gastón is the traditionalist, both as a dance instructor and in his family life. He wants structure, a wife and a son who will fulfill his desires as a paternal figure. Ema is not the traditional type, a dancer who is passionate about reggaetón, a genre that’s seen as disruptive, one played at clubs to numb the minds of drunk youth. Ema’s sexuality is fluid, her marriage is a mask that keeps her locked in a box, and when she’s set free she blooms, both in her craft as a dancer and romantically with her new partners.
It’s clear at about 15 minutes into the film that Larraín and screenplay writers Guillermo Calderón and Alejandro Moreno are writing around a big reveal, one that drives the story forward with a veiled mystery where the layers boisterously want to be peeled back. The film is cut around a tantalizing secret, feeding the fire that Ema engulfs herself in: Why did they have to return their adopted son? As Ema spirals and chaos submerges her world, Larraín’s film amplifies, ignited with bursts of pure energy.
Ema is like a sisterly companion to Larraín’s Jackie, a film that also features an enthralling leading woman who is in crisis. Kin to Natalie Portman’s performance, Di Girolamo is center stage, offering a powerful presentation that electrifies Ema. Ema is a sexy, dynamic character, challenging the societal norms that surround motherhood, wifehood, and artistry. Aggressively fierce, Di Girolamo is a showstopper, one step away from burning up the banal, gray world that surrounds her.
Larraín’s mesmerizing use of dance is explosive and alive, the driving force of his film that breathes it life. Ema’s sexuality is linked to the dances she performs – wild, strong, and provocative. Mini music video-like interludes of her and her dance crew create a hypnotic atmosphere, a strikingly unique and experimental way of storytelling from Larraín. Ema is in line with Larraín’s queer sense of storytelling, but also feels like a creative boost for the director.